It was only a matter of time before more big players started to dip their toes into funding longevity science. The bigger the player, the more important the very existence of their position of support becomes: much of the struggle to raise funding and public support for the goal of extending the healthy human life span involves generating credibility and legitimacy in the public eye. It's unfair, and completely disconnected from merit and utility, but that's the way things work. Greater support for longevity science from the California venture and technology community has been building for some years: it is no accident that the SENS Research Foundation has its base in the Bay Area, for example. That choice is not just a matter of several of the most noted aging research laboratories being nearby, with another in LA, but also that a strong base of funding and grassroots support exists in that part of the world.
It is pleasing to see that the folk running Google have decided to direct some of their philanthropic muscle towards the problem of aging, not least because they have access to one of the largest soapboxes in this modern world of ours. That Google openly backs longevity science is a tremendous boon for everyone who advocates for greater research funding in this field, and for everyone seeking to raise funding in this field.
Announcement by Larry Page
I'm excited to announce Calico, a new company that will focus on health and well-being, in particular the challenge of aging and associated diseases. Art Levinson, Chairman and former CEO of Genentech and Chairman of Apple, will be Chief Executive Officer. Art and I are excited about tackling aging and illness. These issues affect us all - from the decreased mobility and mental agility that comes with age, to life-threatening diseases that exact a terrible physical and emotional toll on individuals and families. And while this is clearly a longer-term bet, we believe we can make good progress within reasonable timescales with the right goals and the right people.
Google vs. Death
At the moment Google is preparing an especially uncertain and distant shot. It is planning to launch Calico, a new company that will focus on health and aging in particular. The independent firm will be run by Arthur Levinson, former CEO of biotech pioneer Genentech, who will also be an investor. Levinson, who began his career as a scientist and has a Ph.D. in biochemistry, plans to remain in his current roles as the chairman of the board of directors for both Genentech and Apple, a position he took over after its co-founder Steve Jobs died in 2011. In other words, the company behind YouTube and Google+ is gearing up to seriously attempt to extend human lifespan.
Google isn't exactly bursting with credibility in this arena. Its personal-medical-record service, Google Health, failed to catch on. But Calico, the company says, is different. It will be making longer-term bets than most health care companies do. "In some industries," says Page, "it takes 10 or 20 years to go from an idea to something being real. Health care is certainly one of those areas. We should shoot for the things that are really, really important, so 10 or 20 years from now we have those things done."
Aubrey de Grey: Finally, the War on Aging Has Truly Begun
To paraphrase Churchill's words following the Second Battle of El Alamein: Google's announcement about their new venture to extend human life, Calico, is not the end, nor even the beginning of the end, but it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.
As little as 20 years ago, when I joined the pitifully small band of academics who call themselves biogerontologists, the prospects for defeating aging were so bleak that it was widely considered unscientific even to discuss it: according to the respectable view, our only option was to continue discovering more about the nature of aging until, by some miracle in the distant future, our body of knowledge took sufficient shape to reveal a route to intervention. A string of advances in the late 1990s, mostly made by researchers not focused on aging per se, changed that: it allowed, for the first time, the formulation of a realistic divide-and-conquer strategy against mankind's most formidable foe. Many components of this strategy were at a dauntingly early stage of development, but all could be described in sufficient detail to offer hope for foreseeable success. As so often in science, many established luminaries voiced skepticism, and some still do; but the plan progressively attracted the support of world-leading experts in all the relevant disciplines, and as it has done so, funding - albeit far too little to maximise the rate of progress - has materialized too.
Now is the right time for a commercial entity to get heavily involved. One of the key activities of SENS Research Foundation, as a non-profit, is proof-of-concept research on key components of the anti-aging arsenal that are still too early-stage to constitute an attractive business proposition for all but the most visionary investors. But we've always made clear that our ultimate goal is to kick-start a real anti-aging industry: not the essentially cosmetic industry that goes by that name today, but a bona fide rejuvenation biotechnology industry, providing people with truly comprehensive restoration and preservation of youthful mental and physical function however long they live. And yes, one side-effect of this advance - a side-effect that we should all celebrate - is that most people will live a great deal longer than today, and will do so in the prime of health.
With Google's decision to direct its astronomical resources to a concerted assault on aging, that battle may have been transcended: once financial limitations are removed, curmudgeons no longer matter. That's why I think it is no exaggeration to state that the end of the beginning may have arrived. I won't go so far as to say that my crusading job is done, but for sure it just got a whole lot easier.
One example of the sort of groundswell of support for longevity science in the California technology culture I'm talking about can be seen in the Hacker News thread on this announcement by Google. Hacker News is a slice of the technology entrepreneur community with an emphasis on the Bay Area startup scene. People commenting there immediately made the connection with the work of the SENS Research Foundation and Aubrey de Grey, despite that not being mentioned anywhere in the press materials. There is a web of connections between entrepreneurs-turned-investor such as Peter Thiel, the SENS Research Foundation, researchers in California laboratories, and a range of people in the technology and venture capital communities, and that network has been growing quietly in the background for years now. Health Extension is one small example of the sort of organized efforts that arise from that community.
Aging is a terrible thing, and parts of the research community have for some years been able to show that there are real prospects for creating rejuvenation therapies. Sooner or later people with a great deal more money than they could ever manage to spend on luxuries are going to wake up and realize that they can buy more years, decades even, of healthy life by funding longevity research. Obviously if you are rich and you can do that, it would be foolish not to. What do you have to lose?
But let us not get too far ahead of ourselves. This effort by Google has just started, and we have no idea how it will turn out. Google doesn't have a good track record for going above and beyond the safe, staid norm when it comes to philanthropy. Their initiatives in that respect have generally been very mainstream, very similar to what other factions of Big Philanthropy are up to, and very unlikely to change the world. So it is entirely possible that this could turn out to be another version of the Ellison Medical Foundation, wherein funding follows the National Institute on Aging model, and is thus highly conservative, largely focused on investigation rather than intervention, and very unlikely to produce any meaningful extension of healthy life. That would be a grand waste of an opportunity, but it's a plausible outcome.
Another possibility is that the outcome here will look very much like the Glenn Foundation initiatives that have established laboratories for longevity science around the country. Most of those funds and the resulting work presently goes towards the slow, ineffective path to extending human life: manipulating metabolism, searching for ways to replicate the benefits of calorie restriction, and so forth. Slightly slowing aging isn't rejuvenation, it's arguably harder than creating rejuvenation, and it won't make any great different to the life span of anyone in middle age today. What use are medicines that can slightly slow aging if you are already old when they emerge? This, too, would be a waste of an opportunity, but is a plausible prediction.
On balance, I will be pleasantly surprised if money flows from Google towards SENS research and similar work on human rejuvenation any time soon: I don't expect that to happen now. I expect Google to back the mainstream, and the mainstream today is not SENS, but rather the slow, painful, expensive attempt to build drugs that slightly slow aging. That said, I will also be surprised if significant money fails to flow from Google to SENS by 2018 or so, as the trajectory for SENS is for it to become a major faction within the aging research community. I expect that trajectory to accelerate as attempts to slow aging via drugs continue to produce poor or no results, and as incremental progress accrues in the foundation technologies needed for rejuvenation: mitochondrial replacement; cleaning up the lysosome; immunotherapies to clear amyloid; and so forth. Sooner or later, people start backing the winning horse, even if it takes them time to recognize that said horse is obviously, self-evidently better than the alternatives.